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Your daily pulp and fibre

David Carruthers’s father made paper, and so did his grandfather. You could say he must have inherited the profession. But when I asked him, he couldn’t quite remember what inspired his decision to start Papeterie St-Amand, a small paper-making operation tucked away in a turn-of-the-century factory basement on the Lachine Canal, 30 years ago. All that he can recall is his desire to work independently.

In an industry dominated by consolidated corporations each owning 15 to 20 wood pulp mills – which exhaust Canadian forests and pollute the environment with bleaches and dyes – Carruthers’s business is a refreshing alternative. Ninety-five per cent of the fibres in the industry come from Canadian forests, and the balance is largely waste paper. Papeterie St-Armand, however, is one of the few manufacturers using recycled cloth and natural fibres. And at St-Armand, the only thing that goes down the drain is water.

The sound of running water fills the main room of the factory, lit partly by windows facing the canal. A handful of workers and old-fashioned machinery occupy one corner, the office area another. The room is mostly furnished with piles of paper. Due to the couple inches of water on the floor surrounding the workers, everyone is wearing rubber boots; a half dozen pairs are scattered nearby. One worker fills a mould with pulp, over and over again; another is rinsing off sheets with a hose. Rows of clothespins, stacks of paper, and columns of drying racks seem to mimic the repetition of these workers’ tasks. The care and skill involved is evident from their concentration, but so is the serenity of an artisanal trade.

Not all of the products at Papeterie St-Armand are hand-pressed. A small metal ladder leads to an upstairs where Carruthers shows me a pale green machine from 1947, and a silver tub at least 20 feet high, into which the pulp is pumped. The machine isn’t running, but I’m told that there would be water spewing everywhere if it were. While the machine was originally steam-powered, it now runs on electricity, allowing it to reach temperatures of about 300ºC. As a result, the paper is dry by the time it runs through the machine. The handmade paper pressed downstairs will take about two days to dry.

Carruthers is a storyteller. Each sheet of paper, each piece of equipment, and even the building’s cement ceiling induce a thoughtful explanation. The burgundy-coloured board, he tells me, comes from a pulp mixture of blue denim, black denim, and red t-shirt. He achieves an impressive range and vibrancy of colours without using dyes; simply by combining different colours of cloth he can make pinks, greens, yellows, oranges, blacks, blues, and reds. The paper’s texture is determined by the materials used – for instance, linen makes a slicker paper than cotton – and also by the pressing and drying process. The paper is patterned by the intricate grid from the wire in the mould, and it is dried on different felts, which can give the paper a range of surfaces.

Bundles of cloth scrap and bales of hay crowd the back corner of the factory. The cloth is separated by colour and made up of tightly bound patches close to the size of a greeting card. One bale of white cotton reaches almost to my head and weighs about 1,500 pounds. Carruthers estimates that this will make about 7,000 large sheets (55.5 by 76 cm). When he started the business in 1979, cotton and linen scraps were easily bought from local manufacturers, but the textile industry, once dominant in the Lachine area, has been mostly exported to countries like Guatemala, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. “It’s a little difficult to justify staying here,” says Carruthers in light of the changes. His cloth scrap is now shipped from Los Angeles – mainly from American Apparel, one of the few retailers that still manufactures its clothing in North America.

The route I took to the papeterie reveals the very changes to which Carruthers refers. New condos stand across the canal, and down the street a building similar to the one occupied by Papeterie St-Armand advertises loft space. What was once a heavy industrial area has become increasingly residential and commercial over the past 20 years. Carruthers notes that the changing face of the Lachine area is one of the threats to his business. “This building will probably be turned into some sort of loft eventually,” he speculates.

Carruthers tests me on the composition of each different paper before disclosing the surprising answers. The first one turns out to be made from Alberta flax. Its coarse texture gives it strength, but Carruthers explains that this sort of hay can also be used to make finer paper. A decordicator combs out the straw, leaving a soft fibre. The more the hay is processed this way, the smoother the paper. Carruthers imports the softest fibres from France, but also receives hay shipped from the prairies, and even grows some on the few acres he has near Montreal. In other parts of the world, agricultural materials are being tested to make paper where there are substantially fewer trees than Canada, but Carruthers is the only manufacturer he knows of who uses them currently in the country.

Sisal is another natural fibre used at the papeterie. Carruthers shows me the coffee bags that he turns into pulp. The paper produced is crisper, and lacks the strength of other materials, but it is cheap and beautiful. “There are lots of leftover coffee bags, with all the kids hanging around the coffee houses,” he notes. Sisal makes a very attractive paper when mixed with cloth – the fibres stand out as golden wisps against the colour of the paper.

Regardless of the material used, the paper is always made by the same process, one used commonly in the paper industry up until the mid-1800s, when the advent of wood pulp brought major production changes. Scraps are thrown into a Hollander beater, which churns the pulp for about eight hours. When I visited the mill, the beater was about half-full of what were once white t-shirts that had come to resemble a giant bowl of porridge.

Papeterie St-Armand’s specialty paper is largely made for artists. St-Armand’s produces high-quality watercolour board, and bound sketchbooks with coloured covers made from mixtures of cloth and either flax or sisal. Carruthers explains that one of the biggest sellers is paper with wildflower seeds, which can be planted to yield flower, whose popularity he attributes to people’s sentimentality and stupidity. One of Papeterie St-Armand’s most unique products is a book resembling a sandwich: two pieces of paper bread, pulled apart to reveal an accordion of lettuce-green pages, and removable slices of paper salami and cheese. Food proverbs are written in French on the lettuce pages, and the paper bag it’s sold in reads: cent pour cent fibres, sans gras.

Carruthers gestures to a stack of paper, an inconspicuous pile of white sheets like any of the thousands that fill the factory, and explains that it comes from a bankrupt mill that used to print Canadian currency. “First of all the dollar became a coin, then the two-dollars became a coin, and then the need for greater and greater security features meant that this mill wasn’t able to adjust,” Carruthers tells me, adding that Canadian currency is now printed in Germany, and our stamps are made in Scotland.

When I ask if the economic downtown has affected paper mills, Carruthers replies, “Oh goodness, yes.” According to the Natural Resources Canada web site, the Canadian pulp and paper industry has seen pessimistic trends over the past five years. Don Roberts, CIBC Managing Director World Markets, attributes this to the rapidly expanding pulp and paper industry in China. Innovations in the industry are essential if the Canadian sector is to survive, Roberts cautions.

Digital technology has made it so that paper is no longer needed to store archives of information. “For so long Canada’s industry has been serving international markets with a few products,” Carruthers says. He suggests this shift could diversify the industry, creating a move toward more independent manufacturers and speciality papers: “I can’t predict the future; I can’t say what the next 20 years will bring in terms of the Canadian paper industry, but my feeling is that we will see smaller mills dealing with local markets,” he says. Ironically, Carruthers’s mill’s pre-industrial methods and equipment may look more like the future of the Canadian paper industry than modern commercial factories.

“I’d say paper’s an endangered species,” says Carruthers, “but, I think there’s more hope for these sorts of papers than those that are flat and have no tactile pleasure.” During my visit to the papeterie, Carruthers encouraged a hands-on approach, urging me to feel the paper’s weight and texture, to break apart the flax into fibre, and to sift through the pulp with my fingers. Carruthers’s papers beg to be touched. And even in our increasingly digital world, there remains a desire to make meaningful and material connections with our surroundings. Whether it’s dirtying our fingers with newsprint, smelling a new book, or painting on watercolour board, paper still holds a relevant place in our lives.